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Strong Helmets and the Stronger Hand of Government


Concussions among youth who play sports are said to be on the rise. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), more than 920,000 athletes under the age of eighteen were treated in emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, and clinics for football-related injuries in the year 2007. Sports injuries are the second leading cause of traumatic brain injury for people fifteen to twenty-four, behind only car accidents.

As a result of increased awareness of concussion injuries, many schools are barring student athletes from competing after receiving a concussion until cleared by a healthcare professional. This heightened concern about child safety is certainly something that parents will welcome.

The rise in concussion injuries hasn’t escaped the all-seeing eye of the federal government. Earlier this year, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate false and misleading concussion safety claims in advertising for football helmets. “I am concerned for our young football players and their safety,” said Udall. Over in the House of Representatives, Democrats Henry Waxman and G. K. Butterfield have called on the Republican-controlled House to hold a hearing on football helmet safety issues.

Because members of Congress seem to think that the answer to every problem is more legislation and regulation, it is no surprise that Senator Udall has introduced the Children’s Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act (S.601). This bill would give the football-helmet industry nine months to come up with new standards that address the concussion risks of young players to the satisfaction of the CPSC. If such satisfaction is not made, then the CPSC would initiate a rulemaking proceeding for the development of a consumer product safety rule with respect to youth football helmets, reconditioned football helmets, new football helmet concussion resistance, football helmet warning labels, date of manufacture label for new football helmets, and date of reconditioning label for reconditioned helmets.

An identical bill, H.R. 1127, was introduced in the House by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ). He is the author of a bill passed by the House last year that requires national protocols for the treatment of youth sports-related concussions.

Currently, sports equipment safety standards are overseen by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), a volunteer trade association. Because of the increased scrutiny by members of Congress, the association has now hired a Washington lobbyist for the first time since it was established in 1969. Riddell, the official helmet supplier to the NFL, which also makes helmets for children, has sharply increased its lobbying this year.

The important issue here is not the potentially serious nature of concussions, the number of student athletes that show up in emergency rooms, the misleading safety claims by helmet manufacturers, the rise in traumatic brain injuries, or even that some kids may have died from playing football with a faulty helmet.

The most important issue — and the only real issue — here is the proper role of government. Is it the purpose of government to be a nanny, a supervisor, or a safety patrol officer? Did the Founding Fathers set up a government to regulate, monitor, or micro-manage the activities of Americans? Can the federal government do whatever it wants in the name of child safety? Does the Constitution authorize the federal government to have anything to do with Americans’ sporting or leisure activities?

I think the answer to these questions is quite obvious.

But that’s not the only problem. Tom Cove, president and chief executive of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, said that his group has concerns about the federal government’s getting into regulating sporting goods. He said about the Children’s Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act that “it was important and far-reaching and serious, and that it had implications far beyond football helmets.”

If the federal government can regulate helmets under the guise of child safety, then where do we draw the line? If the federal government claims it has the authority to monitor our sporting and leisure activities “for our safety,” then there is no stopping its reach into our lives. What if the federal government mandated that people in northern states during the winter wear a particular kind of spiked shoe so they won’t slip on the icy sidewalk? What if a government bureaucrat was stationed outside of these people’s doors to make sure they comply with the shoe regulations? The regulation of football helmets ought to be considered just as ludicrous.

Who, then, should be involved in setting standards for helmets and other sporting equipment? Parents, athletes, doctors, equipment manufacturers, schools, sports teams, retailers, trade associations — anyone but the federal government.

If any level of government should be regulating sporting equipment it should be state governments. Now, as a libertarian, I am not in favor of any government at any level regulating sporting equipment or any other type of equipment. But as an American with an understanding of our Constitution and federal system of government, I am far more opposed to the federal regulation of sporting equipment because it centralizes more power in the federal government, makes a mockery of the Constitution, and destroys our federal system of government.

Take the example of motorcycle helmets. Back in 1967, the federal government stipulated that states enact motorcycle-helmet laws to receive certain highway construction funds. By 1975, every state but three mandated the use of motorcycle helmets. State helmet laws were relaxed in the late 1970s. In 1991, Congress began giving special grants to states in order to encourage them to strengthen their helmet laws, but by 1995 the federal government removed sanctions against states without helmet laws. Since that time many states have relaxed their helmet laws. Currently, Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire have no helmet laws whatsoever, twenty-seven states only require some motorcyclists to wear a helmet, and twenty states mandate that all motorcyclists wear a helmet. Additionally, twenty-one states require some bicycle riders to wear a helmet.

The federal government may have bullied and bribed the states to enact helmet laws, but it did not violate the Constitution and do so itself. The great variety in the helmet laws within the fifty states should be seen, not as confusing, but as confirming that we still have some semblance of federalism and decentralization left in the country.

Again, as a libertarian, I am not in favor of the state governments mandating that motorcycle or bicycle riders wear helmets. But it is on the state level that these ideas should be debated. The federal government should not have anything to do with it.

Strong helmets are good, but we don’t need the stronger hand of government to regulate what goes on in our homes, in our cars, and on our football fields.

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